Mises Daily

Home | Library | The Communitarians

The Communitarians

October 14, 1999

Are supposed "communitarians" merely liberal collectivists in
disguise? That’s the argument of essayist Roger Scruton, and he
makes a forceful case. Communitarians Amitai Etzione, Michael
Sandel, and Michael Walter, for example, enshrine big government
and statist social agendas while nonetheless claiming to be
returning to traditional communal life.

The only identity that these publicists wish to preserve are
those of designated minorities; and their prescribed means for
fostering communal spirit is to have the state set family policy
and socialize the young. These unmistakable leftists, says
Scruton, "offer a vague and distant glimpse of tribal feelings, a
perfume of togetherness, sufficiently faint to offer no real
threat to the 'multicultural' society and the liberal agenda."

Communitarians wail against "bourgeois civilization and its
homely virtues" and about the "dispiriting individualism of
modern life." Their pseudo-right-wing protest strikes chords of
response for those not quite reconciled to the modern world.
Nonetheless Scruton insists the latest communitarian dream is not
about an organic past but about a rigorously statist
engineered future.

Scruton's observations are not entirely novel. In 1953,
Robert Nisbet explored the link between radical politics and the
frenzied quest for a fictitious and totally controlled past. The
proper human ties once restored would supposedly allow people to
live together without a cash nexus or legal formalities.

And 1922, Mises’s dealt with the pre-communitarian claims of
Solidarists and Distributivists under the category he called
"pseudo-socialism." These thinkers sought to preserve private
ownership and avoid socialism, even while preventing
accumulation, competition, and other individualist activities
said to be contrary to social duty.

There are some communitarians who have opposed statist
collectivism. Among them are Eugene Genovese, Christopher Lasch
(despite his affection for guild socialism), Alasdair MacIntyre
(despite his stated contempt for commercial cultures), and the
editor of Telos, Paul Piccone (who moved from Marxism to
libertarian decentralism, without ceasing to regard himself as a
communitarian). These non-statist communitarians have yet to come
around to full classical liberalism because they have not asked
the hard questions about the nature of bureaucracy and
therapuetic politics.

But the same judgment must also apply to many
anti-communitarians, who have entered the political conversation
supposedly from the other side. They too are characterized by a
trusting acceptance of managerial government which engages in
behavior modification. The alleged reason that neoliberals accept
this exercise of power is to strengthen individuals who would
otherwise be victimized, or so we are told, by insensitive

Thus neoliberal Oxford professor of law Ronald Dworkin
writes at length about how courts must define and uphold "rights"
that should take precedence over the decisions of elected
legislatures. Unlike "procedural matters," decided on by elected
representatives, wise judges should determine "prepolitical
rights," which protect individuals against the majority. Dworkin
dishonestly defends racial and gender quotas as classical liberal

Another self-identified neoliberal, John Rawls, who has
nothing good to say about communitarians, supports quotas and a
socialist economy. In his version of a contractarian theory,
Rawls assumes that the "greatest equal liberty for all" is
something that all individuals should want. Rawls identifies
justice as "fairness" and designates the state as the custodian
of justice, that is, as an agency that undertakes and oversees
material redistribution.

Rawls's insistence that no inequality be allowed unless it
benefits the worst off can be used to defend capitalism as well
as to devalue it. But it also allows Rawls to advocate what he
wants all along, a welfarist policy that can be superimposed on
individualist premises. This forced theorizing contributes to the
mainstream communitarian aim, which Scruton says is "the transfer
of resources from private ownership to the state."

Another neo-Lockean who finds no incompatibility between
bashing communitarians and pushing welfarist policies is Stephen
Holmes of the University of Chicago. A garden-variety
left-of-center Democrat, Holmes, in his widely acclaimed polemic,
Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1993), targets those who set
"communitarian traps." But this exercise in labeling is all that
divides Holmes from left-communitarians. Holmes tries link
egalitarian redistribution to the classical liberal tradition,
even while belittling the classical tradition of property rights.

The pretense that all liberalisms flow together serves the
same need as the "conservative-sounding rhetoric" that Scruton
detects among some communitarians. It is a justification for a
socially interventionists government, one depicted as the
defender of steadily updated "rights," all of them fathered on
long-dead liberal theorists.

Even more significantly, it may be hard to distinguish these
left-communitarians from conventional conservatives in the U.S.,
who talk vaguely about "family values." They claim to be for the
family and for public policies that advance this cause. But they
do not want to take seriously such institutional bulwarks of
family life such as private property and the market economy.
Moreover, their rhetoric is easily expropriated by gay and
feminist lobbies eager to enhance state power.

At an American Political Science Association meeting, a
conservative roundtable, including Michael Barone and Harvey
Mansfield, rejoiced at America's "turning to the Right." The
proofs furnished for this imagined development are that Americans
are taking seriously the 1964 Civil Rights Act and that our
government is promoting family values.

It is significant that both of these things were linked.
Each was or is an excuse to expand federal administrative power,
at the expense of lower levels of government or the private
sector. And both "conservative" achievements ignore the truth
that community and modern administration represent antithetical
interests. Such an action would result in having government
administrators treat the family as the object of their own
experiment. It would also confirm the already self-proclaimed
role of the administrative state as a creator of "family policy."

Even if the state were to carry out policies that seemed
pro-community, such as changing the income tax so as to favor
large working families, this would not serve the long-term
interest of communities. It merely provides another cover for
political management, albeit one marketable to the middle class.
But for those serious about communities, the goal of protecting
their institutional integrity is inseparable from guarding their
independence and their property from political invasion.


Paul Gottfried teaches political philosophy at Elizabethtown
College. FURTHER READING: "Communitarian Dreams," Roger Scruton,
City Journal (Fall 1996); Robert Nisbet, Quest for
(Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1953); Ludwig
von Mises,
(Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981 [1921].

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

Follow Mises Institute